Architecture in Harmony
A rondo is a piece of music in which the main theme keeps recurring between different episodes. Antonio Diabelli’s Rondino was written for the piano in the 18th century. essentially a ternary or three element form, two repeats elongate this rondo into a five part composition. It opens in mezzo piano, rising through a crescendo then a forte section, before softening through a diminuendo back to mezzo piano.
Rondino is typical of the classical era of the arts. It is symmetrical with a regular rhythm set in harmonised yet contrasting elements strung out and repeated. Articulated notions of Beauty, the Sublime and the Picturesque underscore the symbolic sensibilities of the piece. This is a work from a maestro at the height of his creative gamesmanship.
The same could be said of Russborough, an Irish neoclassical house designed by the virtuoso architect Richard Castle. The Palladian ideal of dressing up a farm axially to incorporate the house and ancillary buildings into one architectural composition flourished in 18th century Ireland, especially under German born Castle.
The central block of Russborough is seven bays wide by two storeys tall over basement. Bent arcades link two identical lower seven bay two storey wings. This five part superfaçade is constructed of silvery grey granite. Straight retaining walls extend from the wings to terminate in gateways at either extremity, like encores. Little wonder Johann von Goethe called architecture “frozen music”.
Awesome, yes. But it combined form with function from an 18th century perspective. One wing contained the servants’ quarters and kitchen; the other, the stables. The two gateways led to the separate stable yard farmyard. In the central block, the high ceilinged piano nobile was used for public entertaining. The low ceilinged first floor was for private family use. The basement housed vaulted wine cellars and yet more servants’ accommodation.
Such is the genius of the place, and its architect, that this arrangement has adapted well in subsequent centuries. When Sir Alfred and Lady Beit flung open their doors to the great unwashed in 1978, a neo Georgian single storey visitors’ centre was neatly inserted behind the eastern colonnade. The west wing was restored in 2012 and discreetly converted into a Landmark Trust holiday let.
The Beit Foundation has ensured the survival of Russborough despite no less than four art robberies from an ungrateful element of the recipient nation. This is no picnic in a foreign land. A tour guide as graceful as Audrey Hepburn glides through the echoing halls and velvety staterooms; the latter, counterpoints in texture to the stony exterior. Not so, other Irish country houses. Carton, Dunboyne Castle and Farnham were all converted into boom time hotels with varying degrees of success. Uncertainty lies over the fate of Glin Castle, Mountainstown House and Milltown House, all for sale in an unstable market. Worst of all, Ballymacool, Castle Dillon and Mount Panther lie in ruins, home to wandering sheep and ghosts.
Contemporary composer Karl Jenkins has brought Palladio back to the forefront of orchestral music. Laterally Literally. Inspired by the 16th century Italian architect, Palladio is a three movement piece for strings. Completed in 1996, Karl was influenced by Palladian mathematical proportionality in his quest for musical perfection.
Palladio’s pursuit of perfect proportions can be traced back to the Vitruvian model of ‘man as a measure for all things’. He reinterpreted the architectural treatise of Vitruvius, a 1st century Roman architect, for a new audience. Vitruvius believed symmetry and proportion created a harmonic relationship with individual components and their whole, either in music or architecture. He developed ratios based on the human body which were later used by 18th century composers. Michelangelo’s Vitruvian Man illustrates the concept.
Like other Roman architects, Vitruvius revered the work of Ancient Greek scholars. Their macro theses argued that the entire cosmos vibrates to the same harmonies audible in music. Pythagorean formulae quantified the relationship of architecture, music and the human form. Even the cyclical nature of the resurgence of classicism, skipping generations like beats, only to be revived in repetition and reinterpretation, has balance and form.